Eating tags is hard to swallow, but is it actually good?
At the start of the new year, most whitetail seasons around the country are closed, or close to it. Although many hunters have been successful, some of us will end hunting season with the bitter, nauseating taste of tag soup lingering in our mouths.
It starts like this. November hits with high hopes as you’ve passed on a few bucks just knowing the best hunting of the year, the rut, will deliver on all your dreams. You hunt hard, but begin to worry a bit as peak rut passes. With a show of bravado you tell your buddies that late season can be good, but underneath your cool exterior you find yourself wondering, “are all the good ones taken?” You soldier on, hunting hard late into the season, but as X’s mark up the calendar, hope begins to wane with the last day of season arriving. As light fades over the horizon, panic hits, your throat constricts, and depression sets deep as you realize your worst fears have come true. You shuffle back to the truck, wondering how you’ll be able to face your buddies, thinking up every excuse in the book of why you shouldn’t have to give up your man card. You avoid your them for months, and undergo extensive psychotherapy to deal with this tragic, life-changing event known as tag soup.
Over the top, maybe, but probably closer to the truth than we’d like to admit. This year I had 2 Michigan tags, and 2 Ohio tags go unfilled. That’s hard to swallow. In fact, I never took a shot the whole year! As hard as it is to see fall and winter come and go with no fling of an arrow, no blood trail to follow, and no holding up the rack of a downed buck, I’m learning that there are major reasons why you should eat tag soup.
First let’s say from time to time it is something that I believe should happen to good hunters. Next, let’s address the notion that it could be I, or you are downright bad hunters. For someone with very little experience, or time in the woods, this could be the reason. However, in my case with 26 years experience let’s assume there are other factors at play.
1. You have standards: With a high bar, you’re going to pass on deer other people would shoot, and forego instantaneous gratification in hopes of something better later. Many people can’t do this. They cave in the moment of truth. It means you have self-control knowing the buck in front of you isn’t quite what you want, or should be taking, and hold off. It’s about knowing what is good for your deer herd, and sticking to the decision you made months earlier when you weren’t under the influence of buck fever. This year I set the goal of a 2.5 year old or better in Michigan, and a 4.5 or better in Ohio. Past experience told me these were realistic goals. In fact, I thought I should have a chance at a 3.5 year old or better in Michigan, since last year I harvested just that. I passed on a lot of 1.5 year olds, and maybe some small 2.5 year olds in the mitten state, and many 2.5 and 3.5 year old bucks in the buckeye state. Dozens to be exact. You see, eating tag soup doesn’t necessarily mean you couldn’t even shoot a deer, it may mean you chose not to for a very good reason.
2. It’s what’s best for the deer herd: Passing on all does was also a part of my plan this year. My first sit on state land gave me a good shot at a nice doe, and many others throughout the year including a haus of an Ohio doe at 15 yards. However, I knew this would not necessarily help the herd in these areas, so I left the bow on the hook and just watched. In Michigan where I hunt, years of reckless distribution of doe tags by the DNR (with no mandatory reporting, and no way to know deer herd numbers or harvests) have left the deer herd anemically low. It might have calmed the itchy trigger finger for a bit, and gave me some “man points” and a boost to the ego, but I knew it was not what was best for my area. Being wise enough to know your area, the herd and it’s needs, and having self-control enough to not shoot can be the right thing to do, and makes tag soup a little less of a bitter pill.
3. Your ego is in check: How many of us have to shoot a deer, and if we don't we feel like less of a man or woman hunter? Let’s be honest here. I struggle with this as well, as hunters tend to place a lot of value on their ability to provide, or not go home empty handed. It’s a natural emotion, however it’s not just about “shooting something” to give our ego a boost. We shouldn’t need to kill something to validate ourselves as human beings, and as much as tag soup stinks, this should not be the reason we pull the trigger or release an arrow. In my opinion, this is a big reason why many people shoot something.. they cannot take the hit to their pride if they don’t. If this is true, what kind of hunters, and conservationists are we? We hear the telltale excuses all the time guised in phrases like “management deer,” “taking out a bully,” shooting an “old warrior,” “thinning out the does,” etc., on goes the list. When your ego is in check, your worth as a person is not tied to just shooting something, and you’re more apt to be a better manager, better hunter, and if you happen to eat tag soup, you won’t need a therapist. If you can’t, then you do need a therapist. You see, eating tag soup means your ego doesn’t manipulate you to take an animal you maybe shouldn’t have.
4. You Have Vision: When you are a mature hunter, you see the bigger picture and realize it’s not just about you. You have your standards, and you stick to them even if it doesn’t work out in your favor for the moment. You see the big goals for your property, your area, and your state years into the future (not just the present moment). In my home state of Michigan, there are so many hunters the prevailing mindset is “shoot anything with antlers immediately because the neighbor will if you don’t!” Sadly, this happens many times, and becomes a vicious cycle when everyone adheres to this montra. Sometimes hunters are so competitive, and selfish with “their deer,” that they shoot everything just so someone else doesn't (even though they can’t possible use all the meat). Stories of hunters shooting 6 or 8 bucks (on other people’s tags) are heard too often. When you are Ok with a neighbor possibly shooting a deer you’re passing, you have the maturity and vision needed to grow a deer herd to a more mature age class and structure, and you mature as well.
Tag Soup. It might leave a bad taste in your mouth, but there are more than a few good reasons why everyone should, at some time, eat a bowl full.
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